In a career spanning 50 years and counting, Liu Thai-Ker has helmed the Housing and Development Board (HDB) and Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), playing instrumental roles in the development of public housing in Singapore and in shaping revisions to the Concept Plan.
Subsequently, as a senior executive in the private sector, he is the man behind high-profile local projects such as the Marina Bay Cruise Centre, the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory at the National University of Singapore and the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts campus, as well as large-scale developments in China.
Three years ago, at the age of 79, the veteran architect founded his own practice, Morrow Architects & Planners, with the intention of creating a smaller studio environment where he can impart his skills and share his experiences with the younger generation of designers.As a guest speaker at the 2018/19 Asia Young Designer Award (AYDA) sponsored by Nippon Paint, he firmly believes in the need to start young in order to develop a profound instinct for any kind of design.
“A young mind is like a blank canvas. It absorbs everything like a sponge and the key lies in ensuring that they absorb the right things.” He feels that AYDA helps young designers to build an awareness for designing for the community at different scales and for designing for the good of people.
Defining new towns and neighbourhoods
“The problem with planning and design is that we tend to use a lot of big words and vocabulary that we do not understand,” Thai-Ker points out. As a young architect heading the Design and Research Unit at HDB, the buzz words were “new town” and “neighbourhood”, but nobody seemed to fully comprehend what these entailed.
He set out to define these planning models through intensive research, visits to European new towns and consultations with experts, scholars, members of parliament, business owners and the HDB estate management division. This methodology helped him to determine the ideal size of a new town and neighbourhood and the population required to sustain the amenities.
Building communities through precincts and vertical kampungs
He shares that someone once referred to the city as a gallery of portraits, which implies that they do not communicate with one another. That got him wondering about how he could pursue the concept of community. He believes in the importance of spatial scale and the need to break down the larger community into smaller precincts.
In a larger neighbourhood, the spirit of community will take a longer time to foster versus if people are housed in smaller precincts, especially if you have only one entrance and you cannot avoid meeting your neighbours day in and day out.
This was the rationale for each precinct having only one main ingress and egress. This made it inevitable for people’s paths to cross such that even if they did not know one another’s names, they would recognise each other’s faces.
This not only enhanced the sense of community, but also the safety and security within the precinct because strangers would immediately stick out like a sore thumb and residents would be on the alert.
However, community interactions do not stop at the precinct level. Beyond that, there are the void decks below every HDB block and, further down the scale, the common corridor on every floor.
By widening these corridors, their utilitarian, circulatory function is transformed into “community spaces in the sky” that connect neighbours and households to one another within their “vertical kampung”.
Achieving more with less
Despite the evident success of Singapore’s public housing, it has had its fair share of criticisms. The most common gripe is that the HDB blocks look bare. However, despite having to market the flats at a level affordable to Singaporeans, Thai-Ker refused to compromise on the apartment sizes.
With landed property, you can build an extension, but this is not an option for high-rise flats. Since he could not cut back on the floor area, in order to maintain affordable selling prices, he had to keep the buildings bare and without decoration.
However, being an architect, he could not disregard the aesthetics, so he explored ways of designing beautiful HDB blocks without resorting to ornamentation. The inspiration came to him while he was watching the telecast of Miss Universe on TV.
It occurred to him that the key to beauty – whether in humans, buildings or objects – lies in proportion. So, he spent a lot of time adjusting the proportions of each block with his team of architects. He also introduced the concept of street architecture that takes into consideration how each block looks in relation to other buildings along the same street. “To me, every HDB block is as beautiful as Miss Universe.”
Apart from proportions, colour was another tool that could make the blocks look visually more pleasing while keeping within tight budget constraints, and that was what he did. Drawing on the ethnic sense of aesthetics, he applied a palette of pastel shades to many of the blocks during his time, which reflected both our tropical environment, as well as the Malay culture.
“In our harsh tropical sun, colours inevitably turn pastel after a few years. In Malay kampungs, they use pastel colours right from the onset, rather than start with a brighter colour and have it fade to a pastel shade eventually,” he rationalises. Chinese and Indian themes also feature prominently in many of the buildings that he has designed.
Planning and design challenges
Contrary to what many people think, he does not believe that the real challenge lies in a rapidly changing world. “The fundamental human needs in a city have not changed for centuries. We need food, jobs, recreation, living and work spaces, and so on. If you can identify the fundamental need of human beings, you are on your way to creating a permanently well-functional, sustainable and liveable city.”
Another challenge facing planners and designers is translating sexy slogans and complex data into physical spaces. Trendy words such as green, smart and eco-friendly mean nothing unless they are translated into physical spaces and he has dedicated his entire life to doing so.
Also, precisely because of the complexity of the modern world, it is essential that cities are simple and easy-to-use, “like a counter balance to our highly complex societies”. He regards the highest form of design as one that “people enjoy without thinking about how clever it is or how it was designed”.
The makings of a good urban planner
With his wealth of experience in public housing and urban planning, it comes as no surprise that he is often asked what makes a good planner. There are three key aspects he considers most important. Firstly, a good planner needs to have a humanist heart. Plan for the people by creating a sense of community and for the land by ensuring that it is functional and sustainable.
Secondly, he or she must also have the head of a scientist. He believes in the science of design. “A city is like a giant machine for living and to design a machine, you need to be very precise and know the parts that make up the machine – how many of each part, the dimensions, how to connect the parts, and so on.”
Thai-Ker also emphasises the importance of research. “My highest talent is not to believe that I have a talent. Every decision that I make must be backed by research.”
To be a good planner, the third essential attribute is to possess the eyes of an artist. Perhaps this is where he has been influenced by his father, pioneer artist Liu Kang. To him, a city is also a work of art. It is pointless to have a functional but soulless machine.
“You need to romance the land, respect the terrains, hills and rivers, and tweak the machine until it blends in with the land,” he says. It is no easy task indeed and, as with any relationship, he jokingly admits: “I was often jilted by the land, but I still love the land.”
Evidently, this passion is still burning strong even after five decades and he is guided by the philosophy, “Form follows function follows fact follows fun”. Many young designers are swayed by fashionable forms, but he urges: “Design for fun so people can enjoy the space. In order to do this, you first need to find the facts and science behind that before turning it into a functional space or building, which then determines its form.”